Emma Eames, Emma Calvé, Emma Nevada. The given name they shared would fall out of fashion for two generations of 20th-century Americans before regaining popularity in more recent times; yet during the closing decade of the 19th century and for the first generation of the 20th, the name “Emma” was found throughout the operatic world. The three best-known singing Emmas had at one time all been students of Mathilde Marchesi, redoubtable queen of traditional voice training who was based in Paris for most of her long career. Marchesi’s students were noted for their virtuoso technique, focused sonorities and controlled transitions across the full range of vocal registration. During their professional years, however, these same singers could often be found performing in the heavier and more melodramatic manner of verismo. That new craze for musical “realism” exploded across operatic stages with the premiere of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana in the summer of 1890. Artists who began their careers in a very different tradition not only wanted to get into the new verismo act: they may also have sensed a need to get into it if they were to plan on long and profitable lives in the music business.
Emma Eames [1865-1952] was born in China to an American family – a business family, not missionaries, originally from Bath, Maine. Eames’s voice was noted for its pure lyricism and was thought by many critics to be superior even to that of Nellie Melba. Before she entered into middle age, though, Eames was already expanding into heavier roles, including – surprisingly – Santuzza in Cavalleria; Elsa in Wagner’s Lohengrin; and the lead in Puccini’s Tosca. Yet Eames remained most clearly identified with a lighter, more lyrical part from an earlier era, that of Juliette in Gounod’s version of the Shakespeare tragedy, Roméo et Juliette. Was it the sudden popularity of verismo style that led singers such as Eames to sing that sort of opera in spite of their training, and in spite of having voices suitable to different parts? Or could this have been an example of the oldest of operatic stereotypes, voices that were heard to grow ’heavier” with age?
For Emma Eames, the transition to verismo and similar dramatic roles may have had less to do with aging and more to do with a public that wanted to see a person such as herself in whatever operas were then current. Whether in lyric parts from the Bel canto era or in attempting to portray a Sicilian peasant, Eames always projected a kind of stolid if cold late-Victorian respectability. This may not seem ideal to a 21st-century eye and ear, yet it was a persona that was familiar to her contemporaries and came attached to a beautiful voice. Her coldness did not go unnoticed: one critic remarked about a performance by her in the lead of Aida, “There was skating on the Nile last night.” George Bernard Shaw said of Eames that she “cast her propriety like a Sunday frock over the whole stage.” Yet she agreed to – or was pushed into, or drawn into by box-office promise – verismo parts. Could this also have helped give her strength to survive the great earthquake in San Francisco during the spring of 1906, when she was on tour with Enrico Caruso and other Metropolitan Opera stars?
Eames’s peer and closest rival was Nellie Melba – later Dame Nellie – who would give the New York premiere of Nedda in Pagliacci. Her voice was also not exactly a heavy dramatic one: she was better known for coloratura roles like that of Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto and the title role of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Was it only to please the public that she sang Nedda not only in New York but at Covent Garden as early as 1893, merely a year after its world premiere in Milan and at the very time when verismo was first being performed to full houses in America?
Emma Calvé [1858-1942] had a voice that may have been more suited from the beginning to a career in dramatic parts. She sang the lead role of Santuzza in Cavalleria not long after it had been created in Rome by Gemma Bellincioni. The latter’s name would today be forgotten if not for landing that premiere part. Calvé, on the other hand, is still remembered as one of the greatest “singing actresses” in operatic history. A native of southern France, she studied with Marchesi early in her career. By 1891 she was well-enough regarded to be chosen to create the lead soprano role of Suzel in L’amico Fritz, the only one of Pietro Mascagni’s works aside from Cavalleria to enjoy continued popularity into the 21st century. After that success, Calvé was selected to play Santuzza at the Paris premiere of Cavalleria, and she was ever after associated with the role. It would even be the vehicle for her debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1893.
Calvé had a range of almost three octaves, and she easily switched back and forth across the full spectrum of the female voice. In the now-rare Massenet opera Hérodiade, Calvé performed both as Hérodias, a mezzo or contralto part, and as Salomé, a soprano. She continued to sing from older works, including coloratura roles like the lead in Lucia di Lammermoor and Mozart’s Countess in Le nozze di Figaro. Calvé also performed meaty parts from the generation just prior to verismo: her lead in Bizet’s Carmen became almost too well-known for its verismo features. She made a study of her characters’ dress, gestures and folkways, even if that led her to present a role that disturbed late-Victorian audiences. For Santuzza, she was quoted as saying that she intentionally wore a coarse shirt and shoes that were “ugly” and that the role demanded as much as naïveté as passion.
For her acting technique, Calvé overtly reflected the Italian stage actress Eleonora Duse. For the top of her vocal range and to gain eerie effects – she also enjoyed an interest in spiritualism - Calvé employed a refined falsetto she called her “fourth voice.” She claimed to have learnt the technique from one of the last remaining castrato singers employed at the Vatican during the closing years of the 19th century.
But what of that third Emma – Nevada - who took her stage name from the mining town where she was born in 1859? She enjoyed a great international career in lyric and coloratura parts, including Gilda, Mignon and Lucia. She sang at major houses and was close to the family of composer Ambroise Thomas. Her own daughter would be named Mignon after his celebrated character. Today, though, Nevada remains an historical sidebar, a “one of those greats” from the past that is barely known even to specialists. Could this have been because she was a coloratura too late – too late for the original era of Bel canto composers like Rossini and Donizetti – and also too soon for the revival of that style that began in the 1940s? Small consolation for her memory may be found in the fact she has her own eponymous Bed and Breakfast: the Emma Nevada House in Nevada City, California, which has now - as of June 26, 2014 - earned 215 (out of 231) “Excellent” ratings on the TripAdvisor website.
The enthusiasm for verismo that began in 1890 did not eradicate an older world of opera, a world of bel canto technique, of dramas by Mozart and Meyerbeer, or even of Verdi’s early hits such as Rigoletto and La traviata. Many performers, composers, and professors were still around from the old days, and perhaps none was more outspoken than Mathilde Graumann Marchesi - “Madame Marchesi” to generations of vocal music students. Born in 1821 or thereabouts – she seems to have fudged her birthdate, not uncommon for that era - Marchesi was a native of Frankfurt who would study in Vienna and London before settling in Paris. Her most famous teacher was Manuel Garcia, brother of both the great mezzo-soprano Maria Garcia Malibran and the singer/composer Pauline Viardot. Malibran created the title role in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. Their father was an elder Manuel Garcia, creator of the role of Count Almaviva in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. The Garcia family was also responsible for bringing the first professional productions of Italian opera to New York, where Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, had gone to teach and produce. In this way, Marchesi seemed barely a generation removed from the glorious days when Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte were fresh from the pen of their composer.
Mathilde Marchesi’s studio in Paris attracted students from all over the singing world, including many from the Americas, Britain and Australia. She lived into her 90s and remained steadfast champion of an older, pre-Wagnerian style of singing. Marchesi put great emphasis on lyrical line and expression, clarity of tone and a smooth transition across vocal registers – the famous passaggio that is still often argued over today. She was frequently interviewed during her later years, and she was anything but reluctant to express her opinions on what was going on in the world of serious music. The coming of Wagner and the verismo school of Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Puccini did not, in Marchesi’s view, change what really mattered with the voice. She decried those teachers who would pretend that a good singer could be trained in as little as one year, and she also disliked the growing habits of physical culture that she observed, particularly in her American and British students. In her volume, Ten Singing Lessons (New York, 1901), she insisted that singers should avoid:
"Bicycling, rowing, dancing, long walks, reading late at night, singing too soon after meals, too frequent theatre parties or social gatherings …. all these must be abandoned."
She also argued against Americans’ fondness for ice water and the British taste for overly sweetened foods. By implication Marchesi connected these with the temperament of both nations:
"Fettered in conventionalities and repressed in the free expression of the feelings … an icy coating has formed about the youthful heart [of British and American performers]."
In her view, students should not only avoid such contemporary indulgences: they should also proceed very slowly with their studies – in practice sessions as short as just five or ten minutes – and allow several years for the voice and the emotions to mature.
Mathilde Marchesi’s critique of the habits of English ethnics did not stop her from gaining many pupils from nations that were or had been part of the British Empire. Indeed, her most famous student of all was Nellie Melba, who first sang publicly at Marchesi’s own school in 1886. The two women exchanged many compliments over the coming years, as “Dame Nellie” became perhaps the most celebrated soprano in the world and Marchesi maintained, until her death in 1913, what felt like a direct connection to the era of the finest in Italian art and expression. As Marchesi asserted in an editorial given to the Chicago Daily Tribune on February 9, 1902, the best voice teacher was one who could show her students how to
"sing with well regulated breath, without effort, without ranting, without tremolo and with perfect registers … [students] should have good style and shouldn’t scream … [and] the girl who wants to be a prima donna should love her art better than anything else in the world. "
Audiences have long been accustomed to the pairing of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci. Each of these works can be presented in one long act, and usually they have been from the time of their premieres in the 1890s. Theatergoers, on the other hand, expect more when they surrender most of an evening. Operatic impresarios responded quickly: as early as October of 1891, Cavalleria was joined with Carl Zeller’s Der Vogelhändler at the Casino in New York. More commonly, however, first Cavalleria and then Pagliacci were given on double-bills with Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, an opera that today is usually presented with a different audience in mind and even a different standard of production. Pre-Mozart works have tended to be defined as “early” – before bel canto, long before Verdi, Massenet, Wagner or the rise of the verismo style. Orfeo was first produced in the 1760s. What occasioned it to be revived in the late-19th century and then presented on the same night as such a “modern” piece as Cavalleria?
Over a lengthy career, C. W. Gluck grew into the role of operatic innovator, a composer and librettist who would put aside the more baroque elements of vocal display that had characterized opera for much of the 18th century. He is credited with emphasizing emotion and a simplified plot line as shown through the music rather than merely attendant upon it. In this sense, Gluck anticipated the best features of the verismo style that would hit the musical world with such force over a hundred years later. We 21st-century listeners may also want to keep in mind that ”realistic” verismo elements were themselves based on much older forms: Commedia dell’ Arte as well as traditions of French dramatic theater. Paris was indeed the setting for Orfeo’s successful revival in 1859, with a contralto in the title role (rather than a male singer) and new orchestrations by Berlioz and Saint-Saëns.
There was more experimentation with double bills: scenes from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor were given on the same night as Pagliacci at the Met in January of 1894 (Nellie Melba as Lucia). Yet by later that same year the double bill of “Cav & Pag” had become well established. With one long intermission, a full night of musical theater could be presented and the house closed up before midnight.
Petro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana had reached Manhattan in the fall of 1891; it was only about eighteen months later that Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci arrived there. The many similarities between these two works were noticed immediately. According to the unnamed New York Times reviewer,
“Leoncavallo was happy in the possession of a good story of love, jealousy, and slaughter, built on lines similar to those of Mascagni’s terse tragedy… No one can deny that the librettist has treated the story in the manner of the contemporaneous Italian music drama after the notable pattern set by Boito in his [and Verdi’s] Otello ... Leoncavallo, like Mascagni, has followed the example of Verdi in his powerful setting.”
Yet this same reviewer notes that the new production being staged at New York’s Grand Opera House was put forward hastily and “out of season” (June 16, 1893) with “inadequate surroundings and a company of insufficient ability.” Singers that night were characterized by “much vociferation … finesse was quite out of the question. The chorus was in deep water nearly all the time, and the orchestra was not equal to its task.” The impresario held responsible was Gustav Hinrichs, who had earlier jumped the gun on Oscar Hammerstein by bringing Cavalleria to Philadelphia before it was performed in New York during October, 1891 [see our blog post #1 from 03/06/2014].
Which of the two new works did this Times reviewer prefer? It seems clear that it was Cavalleria. By comparison, he finds Pagliacci to be “without that broad sweeping power” he ascribes to both Mascagni and Verdi; and the serenade of the Harlequin (Beppe/Peppe) “suffers by comparison with Turiddu’s serenade behind the curtain” in Cavalleria. The reviewer concludes by asserting that “the decision is always in favor of Cavalleria” even as “last evening’s performance was not a fair test of the new work.”
Barely a month after Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana reached New York in October of 1891, a production of that same opera was selling out in London and then received a special request – indeed, a command. Singers, musicians, crew and producer were to attend upon none other than Queen Victoria, the woman who had already given her name to the era. Their temporary venue would be Windsor Castle, and among the other eminences in the audience would be the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra), two of Victoria’s grown daughters (Princesses Beatrice and Louise), and the queen’s granddaughter Maud, who would later become Queen of Norway. The London producer, identified in the press as “Signor Lago” or (incorrectly) “Signor Tagos” of the Royal Italian Opera Company, was enjoying so much success that he had begun to stage the opera every night of the week at the Shaftesbury Theatre.
News of the Victoria’s “command” generated stories and headlines here in the USA. The Washington Post commented that
"All of the scenery of the opera was transported from London and set up in the castle, and the opera was produced with the most punctilious regard to every detail."
The New York Times added a further note that Cavalleria was taking the place of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Ivanhoe, which had originally been scheduled to enjoy a royal viewing. This substitution was blamed on the size and bulk of the Ivanhoe scenery – but could some other factors have been involved?
Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana premiered in Rome during the spring of 1890. Its impact was as great on the operatic world as had been the first complete run of Wagner’s Ring in 1876 or the opening of Verdi’s Otello in 1887. Within a year this so-called verismo work – a “realistic” musical drama – had traveled to dozens of cities and already become among the most popular operas of the late 19th century. When it arrived in New York the next year, two different production companies vied to be first with it – although neither of them was the Metropolitan. The company that thought it had purchased exclusive rights from Mascagni’s publisher was that of Oscar Hammerstein. This was the first such Oscar, not his grandson who would later gain fame as a popular lyricist. Below you can see a notice placed in the New York Times for opening night - October 1, 1891 - complete with an addendum that you could still buy tickets at the nearby Plaza Hotel: